Southwest Water Resources

The Problems We Face, Part 2 Page 2

By Jay W. Sharp


Rio Grande flowing through a cut channel, beneath bridges, to reach the fields of farmers during the spring irrigation season. 

Rio Grande flowing through a cut channel, beneath bridges, to
reach the fields of farmers during the spring irrigation season. 

"The Rio Grande is getting to the point where it's just like the Colorado [River]," Gary Stolz, spokesman for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, near McAllen, Texas, told the Austin Chronicle back in 2001. "It's all used up." That was the year that the Rio Grande failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. 

By the time the historic stream (which rises in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado) has passed through the upstream impoundments and labyrinthine irrigation ditches and reached the border with Mexico, at El Paso and Juarez, it has become a channelized, concrete-bordered, bleak issue of dingy water. By the time it passes through El Paso, Juarez and the communities just downstream, it often flows as no more than an intermittent trickle of mineral-laden water. Until it approaches the Big Bend National Park, its banks, once densely wooded with willows and cottonwoods, have become lined with that invasive water hog, the tamarisk, or salt cedar. From El Paso/Juarez to Big Bend, the Rio Grande is now often called the "Forgotten River." 

Tamarisk, or Salt Cedar, an invasive plant that borders much of the stream in the upper Rio Grande basin. 

Tamarisk, or Salt Cedar, an invasive plant that borders much of the stream in the upper Rio Grande basin. 

Even with its flow somewhat restored by downstream tributaries and throttled by still more impoundments, "growing demand coupled with times of drought is taking its toll," said Melissa McEver in her article "New Bill Would Protect State's Environmental Flows," Valley Freedom Newspapers, in 2001.  "A sandbar formed between the Rio Grande and the ocean—a shocking sight for biologists and environmental advocates." Cindy Loeffler, Texas Parks & Wildlife, told McEver that "It was a bad situation—it opened a lot of people's eyes." 

While aquifers and rivers decline in the desert basins, our increasingly arid foothills and mountain slopes have become a setting for stressed and dying trees and ferocious wildfires. The ranges have come to support abnormally dense vegetation because of the governmental practice of suppressing not only human-caused, but also natural, wildfires, which once cleared the forests of excess undergrowth. Covered with the heavy stands of brush and failing trees, the slopes – dried out year after year by earlier springs, longer and hotter summers, and later autumns – now experience hotter, higher-reaching and faster-burning fires that leave a forlorn landscape of unprecedented destruction. 

As Kunzig said in his National Geographic article, close to 10 million acres burned in 2006, setting a record that lasted but a single year. In southern California alone, during the autumn of 2007, more than a dozen wildfires drove more than a quarter of a million people from their homes. The wildfires destroyed numerous structures, including the offices of and the home of Lynn Bremner, 's Sale/Marketing Director. 

Aftermath of a wildfire at the foot of a Chihuahuan Desert mountain range. 

Aftermath of a wildfire at the foot of a Chihuahuan Desert mountain range. 

As our water resources across the Southwest decrease, becoming ever more valuable (and perhaps ever more vulnerable), some are threatened with contamination, which may render them unfit for use. Underground and surface waters are becoming fouled with fertilizers and insecticides from irrigated fields and heavily watered suburban lawns and gardens; leakage from septic tanks and aged petroleum products storage tanks; manure from livestock feedlots and dairies; toxic waste from industrial operations; heavy metals from mining operations; rubbish from landfills; the flotsam and jetsam of human carelessness; and human waste from inadequate (or non-existent) sewage handling systems. 

For one example, the lower Colorado River basin has become contaminated with low levels (about five parts per billion) of perchlorate, a constituent in Cold War-era missile propellants. It originated, said the BNET Business Network Internet site back in 2003, at a rocket fuel propellant factory in Nevada, near Lake Mead. Over time, it could have adverse effects on human health, and it may take years to flush out of the river system. 

For another example, the upper Rio Grande basin, especially where it flows through the Chihuahuan Desert downstream from El Paso and Juarez, has become fouled. "On both sides of the border," said the Houston Advanced Research Center in its Internet site, "many people live in substandard housing. Poor water quality and lack of sewage and potable water, especially in Mexico and the colonias in Texas, have been linked to gastrointestinal diseases…and possibly birth defects…"

The Competition for Sustainable Water Supplies

"Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over," someone – reputedly Mark Twain – once said. From prehistoric times, Southwesterners have spent a lot of treasure, spilled a lot of blood, and called on a lot of deities to gain control of the waters of the desert. 

Decades ago, when supplies were relatively abundant, populations were relatively small, and droughts were expected to be of short duration, the Southwest's communities and states and the U. S. and Mexico often entered into comparatively easygoing agreements to manage and share water. Now, when supplies are diminishing and sometimes contaminated, populations and demand are growing, and a possible long-term drought may be unfolding, Southwesterners have intensified their competition for sustainable water supplies.     

From the Pacific Coast to the High Plains, commercial interests – from small farmers to big developers to heavy industries – compete for water. Communities – from major cities to rural villages to Indian reservations – compete for water. The country club set, with lush gardens and lawns and verdant golf courses, competes with impoverished neighborhoods for water. Environmentalists compete with extravagant and careless consumers for the water required to sustain riverine environments and deltas. The United States and Mexico compete for the water required to meet the demands of their flourishing desert populations. 

Meanwhile, federal, state and local government agencies, research centers, citizens' organizations and Mexican institutions are struggling to define and implement the coherent policies, management practices and technologies necessary to assure sustainable water supplies. 

Of course, these require coherent political leadership, organization, planning and financial resources. Their work holds promise, but, clearly, as Jeneen Interlandi said in "Rivers Running Dry," Newsweek, April 28, 2008, "There is no single solution. Governments, industries and individuals will collaborate or suffer the consequences."

"When the well is dry," said Benjamin Franklin, "we learn the worth of water."

back to article beginning


Southwest Water Resources Series:
Dwindling Southwest Water Resources - Part I
Southwest Water Resources - The Problems We Face (Part II)
Southwest Water Resources - A Glimmer of Hope (Part III)

Other Related Pages:

Water, Water ... Nowhere
The Colorado River: Water and the Desert
The Colorado River: Lifeline of the Southwest
On Desert Water Rights the relevance of literary
traditions to interspecies relations, and
the Disney Weltanschauung...



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